Episode 23: A Natural History of the Ego, Part 2

Stream Audio

In the last episode we looked at the nature of the ego, and it was not a pretty picture.  We found it to be immature, demanding, self-centered, and duplicitous, whether it is looking for praise or for pity.  This is certainly not to say that it resides equally in all people, and its negative effects are certainly more apparent in some than others, but the net effect is to keep us from realizing our relationship to the Good, and with it our own true nature and potential.  And unfortunately, it is scalable; the more efforts we make to realize the Good, the more efforts ego will make to prevent it.

In this episode then, I would like to explore some of the ways it does this by looking at how it determines our attitudes towards “religion”–one of the first ways being to create a separate category of experience called “religion.”  In the ancient Greek philosophical schools, there was no distinction made between life and philosophy–as summed up in the title of Pierre Hadot’s excellent book on the subject, they viewed “Philosophy As a Way of Life.”  It was not a purely academic study the way it is treated now, which allows you to study and debate ethics endlessly, and then still go out and perform harmful actions without fear of contradiction.  Religion generally requires a higher standard of behavior, but it is still something that can be divorced from our lives by performing certain rituals on a regularly scheduled basis.

The kind of religion usually practiced by the ego takes a similar form regardless of the name it goes by.  In all cases it is authoritarian: God is an all-powerful and rather capricious father figure “out there” somewhere, who has an insatiable need to be worshiped and whose main goal seems to be to keep me from having a good time by employing a system of rewards and punishments.  What I enjoy is a sin and I will be punished for doing it; what I don’t enjoy God does and will reward me for doing it.  God’s real ace in the hole in this system is the final judgment–I can enjoy myself on earth, but after death I will pay for it by being consigned to eternal damnation.

Given its essentially adolescent nature, this is of course exactly what we could predict that the ego would believe.  In this view, God is kind of an ego-in-chief, an “alpha ego” to which ours can aspire as a model of self-absorption.  It is the view often held by religious fundamentalists of all stripes, and helps justify their own need for power, a sense of superiority, hatred of the infidel, and devotion to a mission.  It is a view that is very useful for keeping the established power structure in power.  But it’s not just believers who become attached to this perspective–atheistic egos also often invoke it when arguing against the existence or legitimacy of such a Supreme Being.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that this in no way corresponds to the way the Good is represented by Plato or any of the other Idealists we’ve considered.  In Plato’s description of “The Child of the Good:”

Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good, and this you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either; and, as in the previous instance, light and sight may be truly said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so in this other sphere, science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good; the good has a place of honour yet higher.

The emphasis here is on “truth and beauty,” on light and on reason.  This theme runs throughout the descriptions by other writers we’ve studied, from Plotinus’ “The One” to Emerson’s “The Over-Soul.”  To be fair, there are of course people in all the major (and minor) religions who are not authoritarian in their approach.  And also to be fair, Plato does give a narrative of a judgement after death in the Myth of Er, in the last book of the Republic, but in it the deceased pass judgment on themselves by choosing another life into which to be reborn.  So in the Ideal tradition, there is no reward and punishment per se–any suffering we experience is a result of our being separated from the light, from the Good which is our true nature.  The “sins” we commit are the thoughts, feelings and actions that perpetuate this separation–we trade the bliss of being with the One for winning the little prizes of the prisoners in the cave.¹  When we shed the limiting ego, and experience that light within, we become as gods ourselves.

I think it would be helpful to examine these different conceptions through the use of two works of art, both created in the Renaissance.  (Islam has its own version of the Day of Judgment, but of course no graphical representations of it.)

Jan Van Eyck (ca . 1390-1441), The Last Judgment ca. 1430

Jan Van Eyck (ca . 1390-1441), The Last Judgment ca. 1430 © Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource. Used by permission.

The first is a fairly traditional rendering by Jan Van Eyck (ca . 1390-1441) of the official version of the Last Judgment, as found in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25, which theme has been rendered by any number of artists over the years.  It shows Christ, the largest, hence most important figure, seated on a heavenly throne surrounded by angels and saints, passing judgment on the people of the earth, and casting the sinners into the eternal damnation beneath it.  The naked (they’re almost always naked) damned, are seen tumbling into hell to be devoured by beasts and endure other tortures², which process is being overseen by the Archangel Michael wielding his sword.

While I don’t wish to give offense, it appears to me that the image and the conception behind it are ones of division and fear.  (“Well, duh,” I hear you say.)  But the Good is antithetical to fear, and nothing good comes from fear.  It brings to mind another quote from Emerson regarding the use of punishment in dealing with his young son:  If I am wilful, he sets his will against mine, one for one, and leaves me, if I please, the degradation of beating him by my superiority of strength. But if I renounce my will, and act for the soul, setting that up as umpire between us two, out of his young eyes looks the same soul; he reveres and loves with me.  (The Over-Soul)


Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter, The Vatican

Contrast this with another painting done by a follower of Marsilio Ficino in the remarkable collection of wall paintings known as the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican.  (These are the same rooms which house the ubiquitous “School of Athens,” which of course shows his familiarity with the Ideal tradition.)  This painting depicts “The Liberation of St. Peter” from prison, as recounted in Acts 12:3–19.  King Herod has imprisoned Peter, but at night an angel

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter (detail)

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter (detail)

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter (detail)

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter (detail)

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter (detail)

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter (detail)

comes and liberates him from his chains and releases him from the cell while the guards sleep.

The parallels between this and the Cave Allegory are striking.  Like the prisoners in the cave, Peter is bound by chains.  Unconsciousness prevails–the guards are asleep, their faces hidden, and so is Peter in the cell.  The only light in the scene is firelight, as in the cave, or the reflected light of the moon–until, that is, the angel arrives, being its own source of light.  Then the angel leads Peter by the hand out of the cell past the sleeping guards.

So unlike the image of judgment and punishment, this can serve as an analogy for how the Good works to bring about our “salvation.”  As Plato sums it up in speaking of the cave:

This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

So by the same token, we are not rewarded for our good behavior either.  When we stop seeing the world through the dualistic lens of the ego, when we stop thinking of ourselves as separate, when we realize that our essential nature is in fact the same as that of the Good, we can say with Emerson, “–all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.  ….I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Image of Jan Van Eyck (and workshop assistant).The Last Judgment. Ca. 1430. Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, each 22 1/4 x 7 2/3 in. (56.5 x 19.7 cm). Fletcher Fund, 1933 (33.92ab). licensed to Ideograph Media LLC © Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource.  Other graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer:

Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?   Plato, The Republic, Internet Classics Archive

²For some truly inventive tortures, see the ones depicted by Hieronymous Bosch in his own version of The Last Judgment:

Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), The Last Judgment (detail)

Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), The Last Judgment (detail)